Covid chaos underlines folly of DfE threats to teachers

The more the crisis spins out of control, the worse the DfE’s aggression towards schools that wanted to stem infection looks, writes William Stewart
23rd December 2020, 11:41am
William Stewart


Covid chaos underlines folly of DfE threats to teachers
Schools Closing: Covid Chaos Underlines Folly Of Dfe Threats To Teachers

The lifespan of a Department for Education policy has dramatically shortened during the course of this pandemic.

It used to take months, or at least weeks, before ministers would back down from stubbornly defended but completely untenable positions and carry out an inevitable U-turn.

Now it's just days. Last Monday, in what felt like a misguided show of strength, a demonstration of ministerial virility, the DfE ordered a council that had asked schools to go online to combat an "exponential growth" in Covid, to reverse the policy.

Less than two days later, Tes revealed that just as the DfE was issuing legal threats to stop term finishing early, it was considering its own policy of starting the new term late.

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And by Thursday lunchtime, education secretary Gavin Williamson had unveiled his staggered start to next term that would see most secondary students studying online at home during the first week.

The typically last-minute, end-of-term timing of this bolt from the blue was enough on its own to anger teachers. But this U-turn on remote education was a Christmas special with an added festive ingredient: rank hypocrisy.

The move online was of course exactly what the DfE had used its great clunking fist to clamp down on in the very same week.

And remember ministers' threats weren't just against local authorities. They were also made against the teaching profession, against distressed heads leading schools full of tired teachers, fearful of what Covid might bring, who were only a few days away from the end of term anyway.

The DfE's determination to maintain a strong public line on school closures made it look like it didn't care about the problems that rocketing Covid infections were presenting to teachers on the ground. And there was no apology when it shamelessly adopted exactly the same tactic it had ruled out of bounds days earlier.

But at least the DfE now had a plan: term would begin a week later for many to allow mass testing to begin, and then everyone would be back in school.

It took less than three days for the cracks to start appearing. On Sunday, health secretary Matt Hancock refused to confirm that schools in tier 4 areas would reopen in January if cases continue to rise, saying: "I've learned not to rule anything out in this pandemic."

The next day, the prime minister also cast doubt on his government's school opening plan. Asked to guarantee secondary students' staggered start return dates in January, Boris Johnson would only say "if we possibly can". And yesterday, his home secretary Priti Patel was vaguer still, talking in terms of when "schools eventually go back".

The reason ministers cannot be more certain, and appear to be heading for yet another embarrassing U-turn, is that they are faced with exactly the same alarming rise in Covid infections that was hitting the schools that they ordered to stay open last week.

Harris, one of London's biggest academy chains, revealed yesterday that it had seen a steep rise in cases going back to the middle of November and that the Covid safety procedures in its schools no longer seemed to be working. Now ministers may be understanding how school leaders felt.

Of course, schadenfreude is not helpful in what seems like an increasingly perilous situation, even with a vaccine. And no one can claim that this worrying new variant of the coronavirus is the fault of the DfE.

But the current chaos underlines just how important it is to have steady, rational leadership that brings everyone together as the country fights this virus.

And what ministers definitely can be blamed for is for driving a needless wedge between the DfE and the teaching profession with its end-of-term threats, at the worst possible time.

Goodwill is a valuable commodity when you are up against it and the DfE will need it in spades in the coming weeks from our exhausted teachers.

It will need it to have any hope of getting mass Covid testing off the ground and it will need it to get schools open again safely. Unfortunately, far too much of that essential goodwill has already been needlessly squandered.

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